A Headscarf, Religious Belief, a Supreme Court Decision, and You

When a then 17-year-old young woman sat down to interview for a fashion retail job in 2008, little could she have known that such a routine occurrence would set off a far-from-routine chain of events that would take her, a few years later, to the United States Supreme Court.

But Abercrombie & Fitch's decision not to hire Samantha Elauf because she wore a headscarf (or "hijab") resulted in her case being taken up by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After hearing oral arguments in February, the Supreme Court this week ruled overwhelmingly -- in an 8-1 decision -- that Abercrombie had violated the rights of this young Muslim woman to practice her religious beliefs.

The majority opinion concluded that Abercrombie's decision to derail Ms. Elauf's job application, based on their presumption that she wore the hijab for religious reasons, placed the iconic fashion retailer on the wrong side of the law; specifically, the provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibit religious discrimination in employment decisions.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church -- with a more than century-long track record of defending religious freedom and the rights of religious minorities -- early on recognized the critical religious liberty implications central to this case. In drafting an amicus (or "friend of the court") brief highlighting these vital issues, the Adventist Church also recruited additional supporters, bringing together a broad, diverse coalition of faith groups and public policy organizations. Some in this group weren't natural allies -- they usually occupy opposite sides of many other issues. But they found common ground on this case and brought many thoughtful insights, along with their credibility, to bear in support of our shared position.

And yes, all of this work by the Adventist Church was in support of a cause centered around a Muslim plaintiff, in a case that did not involve a member of our faith.

America has long been described as a cultural "melting pot" and a look around virtually any office today confirms this reality. In an increasingly diverse work world, where colleagues can come from any corner of the globe and practice any faith -- including religions that may be unfamiliar to many of us -- it's more important than ever that we maintain constitutionally protected individual rights to religious freedom. Even the rights of individuals who are very different from us. And especially for individuals in a minority group, who may not have others to speak up for them.

While you may not know a pastor by the name of Martin Niemöller, you're undoubtedly familiar with some version or another of an often-adapted quotation:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me -- and there was no one left to speak for me.

This is why so many faith groups joined together in support of our Muslim sister. The rights at stake in this case were significantly bigger than any one individual, and bigger than any one faith. When the rights of any one group or individual are infringed, it's that much easier for the next group or individual to also lose rights. This is why I cared. And it's why you should care, as well.

The Adventist Church and many others have applauded the Supreme Court's decision, especially appreciating this key point from the majority opinion: "An employer may not make an applicant's religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions."

We hope that Congress will follow the Supreme Court's example and strengthen workplace religious protections.

All for one and one for all. This may no longer be a prevailing sentiment in society, but like the far-from-routine events that took Samantha Elauf to the Supreme Court, sometimes thinking and doing things a little differently is exactly the right way to go.